To his U.S., British and Gulf mediators and benefactors, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh says he is ready for a peaceful exit from power.
To his close circle of aides he sneers at a Western-backed agreement to end his 33-year reign.
On the ground, he is engaged in a war with the country’s most powerful tribe. And those of us who have met him in the past week are left with the clear impression he has no plans to step down, or to relinquish power willingly, Reuters reports.
A master with words, he talks about the future of Yemen with the confidence of a leader with every intention of staying.
The protest movement by millions of Yemenis who have risen up since January, inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, has become a sideshow to fighting between Saleh’s forces and the Hashed, a tribal confederation led by the al-Ahmar family.
Army officers, presidential guard units, tribal sheikhs, clerics and politicians have defected to the opposition. The most powerful and senior military defector is General Ali Mohsen, who has deployed his First Armoured Division to protect pro-democracy protesters in the capital, Sanaa.
When confronted with persistent demands that he accept a deal, brokered by Gulf Arab states, under which he would resign and allow a peaceful transition, Saleh has, according to several sources, responded to close associates with a hint of menace:
“I will leave Yemen as I found it,” he has said.
What the 69-year-old president appears to mean is that he would leave Yemen not only as illiterate, destitute and backward as he inherited it when he took over from his assassinated predecessor in 1978 but also fractured by a civil war similar to the two wars that engulfed the country of 23 million before him.
“He has the power to wreak havoc,” said a senior Western diplomat based in Sanaa, adding that the opposition as yet lacks the strength to overthrow him. “Saleh has ruled by force and will continue to rule by force,” he said. “The only threat for him is force, and it hasn’t reached that yet.”
Another source familiar with Saleh’s thinking said: “He will never leave power or sign the deal unless he is forced to.”
The president’s close relatives, who control Yemen’s most lucrative sources of revenue and state assets, are pressuring him not to give up power, this source added.
Several diplomats and officials with knowledge of the president’s negotiations and policies spoke only on condition they were not identified. Some declined to be quoted in any way.
Every time negotiators have thought they had sealed a deal and that Saleh was finally about to sign his own exit from office, he has sidestepped his departure by imposing additional conditions. This has gone on for over two months.
In that time, negotiators shuttled back and forth to tailor details to meet Saleh’s requests — from the very title of the agreement, to who would sign it first, from providing for immunity from prosecution for him and his family to accepting his veto on having certain opposition figures as signatories.
When the intermediaries, including U.S., British and Gulf diplomats, concluded two weeks ago that every eventuality had been covered except the actual signing, Saleh surprised them by demanding yet another condition — a public signing ceremony at the presidential palace, to be attended by the opposition.
The opposition refused. “This was not part of the agreed process,” the senior Western diplomat said. “The fact is that Saleh has agreed to the process and reneged on it.”
Adding insult to injury for the negotiators, gunmen loyal to Saleh surrounded the United Arab Emirates embassy in Sanaa on May 22, the day the signing had been planned. The lead Gulf mediator, the U.S. ambassador and several European envoys were trapped for hours and were finally evacuated by helicopter.
Negotiations are now effectively on hold.
CONFLICTS AND VIOLENCE
Under fierce international criticism for his behaviour in going back on his promise to quit, Saleh immediately moved his forces against the Ahmars, turning a political crisis into violence that has brought civil war closer.
Then his supporters announced on Sunday that Islamist militants had seized control of the southern coastal town of Zinjibar. Though the militants there are not clearly linked to al Qaeda, Saleh has long used his opposition to al Qaeda to secure support from foreign allies fighting the jihadists.
Yet less than the threat of Islamist takeovers in more cities, it is Saleh’s widening war with the Ahmar family in the capital, Sanaa, that, close associates say, shows how determined he is to stay in power, even at the price of civil war.
“For us in the international community, we see the demonstrations in Taiz, Sanaa and elsewhere as part of the popular protests,” the senior Western diplomat said. “For the Salehs, from the very beginning it has been about the Ahmars, a battle of wills between themselves and the Ahmars.”
The fighting, which turned more violent on Tuesday after a two-day cease-fire broke down, is starting to look like civil war. Within a few hours the Ahmar tribe occupied several ministry buildings, including the interior and trade ministries.
“His (Saleh’s) position is considerably weaker today than it was a week ago,” the senior Western diplomat said. “Positions have hardened against him. Therefore I would say that his ability to hang on is less today than it was weeks ago.”
Mediators still want to believe that Saleh will choose to step down quietly by agreeing to what the describe as the “best conceivable deal” an Arab autocrat can get — it would spare him the fates of: Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had to flee Tunisia; of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, now facing trial; of Muammar Gaddafi, under NATO bombardment in Libya; and of Bashar al-Assad, whose Syria is under increasingly tough international sanctions.
“He has to take one decision which is to sign the deal,” a senior European diplomat said. “No other deal will include immunity. The delay is not in his interest.
“The deal won’t be there forever. There will be very severe international reaction if there is further bloodshed, killing of civilians and violence.”
Many of the mediators involved in the talks say, however, that Saudi Arabia, Saleh’s main supporter and financier, continues to prefer mild diplomacy to persuade him to leave and has not yet piled on all the pressure it has at its disposal.
Some Yemeni politicians allege that Saudi policy is affected by divisions in Riyadh over which Yemeni faction to favour.
Different branches of the Saudi royal family, diplomats and politicians say, are financing the three main players in the conflict — the Ahmars, Saleh and General Mohsen, who has stayed on the sidelines of the fighting between Saleh and the Ahmars.
For many Yemenis, all three factions, which have tribal and other links with each other, are largely driven by corrupt self-interest rather than the wellbeing of the nation at large.
“Until the Saudis make up their mind the rest of us will continue to engage,” the Western diplomat said. “The Saudis don’t want to see chaos or upheaval. They want to see stability preserved in Yemen and they will make a decision based on that.”
But while Saleh reaches into a familiar tool box to divide and rule through patronage and intimidation, mediators say international pressure on Saleh will have to be ratcheted up to prevent this failing state from imploding.
“We say it is not in his interest to choose violence and point to Libya and Syria and say ‘Do you want to go down that road rather than get a better political deal than Ben Ali and Mubarak’,” the European diplomat said.
In many conversations over the past week with Yemenis ranging from many walks of life, most blamed Saleh and his family for the woes of this largely tribal state.
It is awash with weaponry and corruption and racked by a secessionist movement in the south, a Shi’ite insurrection in the north and a growing al Qaeda presence in the centre.
Some analysts and ordinary Yemenis say the threat from al Qaeda, while real enough, has been exaggerated for political advantage by Saleh. He has in the past allied with such jihadi groups in the past — during a 1994 civil war in the south and in attempts to crush a Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in the north.
The unrest over the past few months has helped al Qaeda, which is making inroads by taking over towns abandoned by government forces and building alliances with tribes and other groups in some provinces along the coast.
But critics say Saleh’s warning that al Qaeda could fill the political and security vacuum if he is forced out is largely a bluff to portray himself as indispensable — above all to the United States, which has supplied him with hundreds of millions of dollars of counter-terrorism funding.
“Saleh’s even turned terrorism into an investment strategy by exaggerating the threat of al Qaeda in Yemen to get more foreign aid,” said Adel Raqib Abdel-Hady, a 32-year-old teacher at the camp set up by pro-democracy protesters in Sanaa.
FEW FRIENDS LEFT
In dozens of conversations in Yemen over the past week, it was hard to find anyone who wanted Saleh to stay. Each segment of society had its own reasons for rejecting him.
The rich resent him because he has failed to establish a modern state with institutions similar to the high-tech models built by their neighbours in the city-states of the Gulf.
The poor complain they cannot feed their children or climb out of the poverty that traps 40 percent of Yemenis, who live on less than $2 a day in the poorest of all the Arab states.
The small but increasingly indignant middle class is enraged by the corruption and backwardness that denies opportunity to their young.
Khaled Tawfik, 35, a businessman sipping tea and working on a laptop at the Mukha Bunn cafe in Sanaa, said: “We want change.
“Not only the poor want the change but also the rich and the middle class. Yemen has been suffering from corruption and stagnation on all levels.”
Adel Saleh, 35, an aid worker, said: “We travel abroad and see how all the countries around us have moved up and how we are still backward. Saleh regards the people as a herd of animals.
“He and his gang steal all the foreign aid that comes to Yemen. We want a modern country, like Turkey.”
Yemeni villages, many without decent roads, schools or hospitals, testify to government neglect over the years. The capital itself is rundown, shabby and polluted. It has an air of destitution and decay, with mounds of uncollected rubbish, swamps and leaking sewage as principal features.
Some of the terracotta-coloured, arabesque houses of Sanaa’s old city are still an architectural delight and the few enclaves of luxury housing, coffee shops, restaurants and cafes that have sprung up are isolated oases of prosperity amid the squalor.
On the streets of Sanaa, the number of beggars is staggering. Even when last week’s fighting forced most residents to stay indoors, crowds of beggars, including women holding babies, laid siege to the few cars stopping at traffic lights, knocking on windows begging for money to eat.
“Saleh has turned Yemeni society into a society of beggars that live on charity, foreign aid and grants,” said Mohammed al-Maytami, professor of economics at Sanaa University.
Analysts and diplomats say the determining factors that may fuel even more popular upheaval against Saleh and affect his survival is the economy.
“The situation is alarming. In the next three months there will be an economic meltdown if the crisis is unresolved,” Maytami said.
“Saleh has destroyed our country and our youth,” said Mohammed al-Jaradi, a retired soldier, 50, who was protesting in Sanaa. “He crushed our future and we accepted our lot but we want to save the future of our sons. This is why we will not back down and won’t be silenced so that our sons will have a better future.”
In central Sanaa, at the area protesters have dubbed Freedom and Change Square, activists agree that the Saleh-Ahmar fighting has stolen the attention from their peaceful movement. But they say they won’t give up their campaign to topple him.
“We are still here to bring down this regime, even if it takes another week, another month or another year,” said student Yusra al-Abssi, 18, at a protest camp. “We are going to stay here until he leaves. And God willing, it will be this week.
“Everybody — the poor and the rich, the illiterate and the educated — they are all here,” she said.
“He has nobody with him. The era of despots is over.”